Thomas tells panel he won't withdraw Nominee, supporters seize the offensive

October 13, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun Gilbert Lewthwaite and Peter Osterlund of The Sun's Washington bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Judge Clarence Thomas fought feverishly yesterday to save his Supreme Court nomination, saying he "would rather die than withdraw," as he and his supporters worked aggressively to undercut the word of his chief accuser -- Anita F. Hill.

In a long, draining day in a Senate committee's witness chair, the 43-year-old judge and senators who support his approval appeared to be regaining some of the momentum with three days to go before a planned Senate vote.

A dual strategy emerged, with the seeming effect of putting the Senate, its Judiciary Committee and Ms. Hill and those who support her on the defensive: a point-by-point suggestion that her accusations of sexual misconduct were made up, and a portrayal of Judge Thomas as the victim of vicious racial stereotypes about black males' sexuality.

Senators working with Judge Thomas conceded that Ms. Hill's poise and "very believeable" testimony, as one of them described it, had made it critical to move the Senate's and the public's attention back to the wrong they perceived to have been done to the nominee.

Judge Thomas was the central figure in carrying out the energetic new strategy. He allowed his rage to flow freely, joined in the denunciation of Ms. Hill, added his implied support to the notion that she was a willing pawn of activist anti-Thomas groups, verbally supported the blunt accusation of Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., that Ms. Hill had lied on the witness stand and vowed not to bow out no matter how much pain it caused him.

So disturbed was he, he told the committee, that "if I were asked by George Bush today to accept nomination to the Supreme Court, I would refuse flatly."

But, when Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, noted rumors that Judge Thomas would withdraw and asked the nominee about them, Judge Thomas said, with anger punctuating every word:

"If they are going to kill me, they're going to kill me. I'd rather die than withdraw from the process . . . I never ran from bullies."

Keeping his emotions mostly in check even as he let his discontent burst forth in words, Judge Thomas repeatedly denounced the Judiciary Committee's public airing of Oklahoma law professor Hill's sexual misconduct charges against him. He repeatedly contrasted the hearing with what he called his "real confirmation hearings" back in September.

And, for the first time in the 105 days since the president chose him for the highest court, Judge Thomas loosed a scathing assault on unnamed "interest groups" for having "developed and concocted" a story of sexual harassment "to destroy me."

Going even further, the nominee said of those groups: "I expected them to attempt to kill me. Yes, I expected an attempt on my life."

He named no names, and cited no evidence for that expectation.

The judge was allowed to leave shortly before 6 p.m., and the committee scheduled an extraordinary Sunday session to hear other witnesses: those who will support Ms. Hill and her version of events, followed by those who will support Judge Thomas.

The panel was planning to call a Charlotte, N.C., newspaper editor, Angela D. Wright, who -- like Ms. Hill -- formerly worked for Mr. Thomas in the government and who has made her own charges of "inappropriate" sexual advances by him.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., briefly brought up Ms. Wright's name yesterday and asked whether Judge Thomas knew of any reason why she would be attacking him. He replied: "I terminated her very aggressively, and summarily, a number of years ago" from a job at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Mr. Thomas was the commission chairman for seven years.

Judge Thomas, taking the offensive throughout yesterday's hearing, used answers to a variety of questions to repeat his complaints about being destroyed personally and to make his bitter accusations of racism.

His voice broke noticeably at one point, late in the day, when he told the committee of getting a telephone call on Saturday night a week ago informing him that the sexual misconduct accusations had been leaked to the press.

After a long silence, he told he senators quietly: "The person you knew, whether you voted for me or against me, died."

Since he first learned of the accusations on Sept. 25, the judge said, he had been living on one hour of sleep at night, has lost 15 pounds, has been unable to eat or drink and has been "unable to think about anything but this and wondering why, how."

He had told the senators earlier in the day: "I would have preferred an assassin's bullet to this kind of living hell."

Judge Thomas had moved only a little way into his testimony yesterday morning when he began raging against the "race-based stereotypes" that he said have long been used to destroy the reputations of black males.

Throughout his life, he said, he has heard the kind of language Ms. Hill used on Friday about boasts of sexual prowess and of the size of sex organs. That language "plays into the most racist stereotypes against black males."

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